Human-Centered Government: Better Service Through Design

By Ivan Nunez

February 27, 2016

Resisting new technology is government’s default position. Design thinking is changing that.

They are two things seemingly made for each other: human-centered design and government service. Both focus entirely on people, understanding their needs and solving their problems. But legacy processes and technology, departmental silos and politics are often, if not always, at play in the government sector, leaving less room to focus on the constituent experience. For years the status quo has been slow to change, but as digital tools and eGov become the primary methods of service delivery, government entities will be forced to evolve the way they operate. This inevitably leads to growing pains, but it’s our view that human-centered design can alleviate many challenges and help retrain priorities on serving constituents effectively and efficiently, both online and off.

A successful example exists in one of our own case studies. A few years ago, Azul Seven helped the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and the Department of Labor (DOL) create a website and digital tool for a national program called MySkills MyFuture. The tool helps unemployed Americans identify new career possibilities and training opportunities based on their existing skills. The user group spans a large range of ages, education and literacy levels. What often happens with these broad user segments is a tendency toward complexity—stakeholders trying to be everything to everyone and replicate offline services with digital copies. So we worked with DEED to counteract that tendency with a human-centered methodology. Instead of relying on internal opinions and traditional service approaches we built empathy for the job-seekers, identified their common needs and created a new digital service to meet exactly those needs—no more and no less—as simply and effectively as possible. The end result was a hard-working service that, though simple, meets real needs and is still in use today.

It’s not just individual services that can benefit from a human-centered approach. To see a large-scale example of this approach in effect, look at the United Kingdom. The new website, and in effect the government’s entire service design strategy, is using design thinking methodologies to tackle citizen engagement and service delivery head-on by starting with “user needs not government needs.” The recently launched site is taking an iterative, citizen-driven approach to government. Rather than strive for perfection from the launch, openly tells users it’s a work-in-progress. Everything is open to feedback, iterations and suggestions to continuously improve the service delivery. This iterative approach is critical to a successful human-centered design practice and it’s just good business. By continuously learning and improving, outcomes are greatly improved while costs and risk are reduced. Instead of fearing failure, the UK is embracing the opportunity to learn from their users and adapt services accordingly.

It’s not realistic for us to imagine that every government organization can simply decide to adopt this approach and things will change overnight. The book Citizenville, by former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, illustrates the inherent challenges that our government faces in adopting new service strategies. “Because of the vast network of rules, regulations, and laws that apply to virtually everything in government service, people aren’t sure what they’re allowed to do, much less what they’re supposed to do… Resisting new technology is the government’s default position.” We’ve seen this proven in many organizations, inside and outside the sphere of government. But the beauty of a human-centered approach is that it can empower individuals to explore ideas in a way that poses little risk to the organization. Start small by just having a conversation with a constituent to gain some empathy. Take those insights to your next meeting and keep that person in mind during decision making. With just a tiny change like that, one person or one department can start to apply this approach to their daily work.

We know it takes a lot of effort and deep cultural shifts to making lasting changes in any organization, and perhaps especially in government. However, the benefits of human-centered design in service quality, efficiency and customer or resident satisfaction should be enticing enough to give it a try. When user needs become the center of decision making, we are able to remove the burden of legacy processes, our personal biases and political influences. If nothing else, we can take the smallest steps, just thinking about our end users a little bit more. By starting with empathy and understanding, government organizations may find they’re actually able to ease internal resistance while also better meeting the needs of their constituents—a win-win situation.

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